Interview with Kobus Kotze

Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event on Friday evening August 12 called Imbokodo at MB Studio Community in Pretoria. Five well-renowned poets, Athol Williams, Nkateko Masinga, Zena Velloo John, Kobus Kotze, and Mthunzikazi Mbungwana performed some of their poems in celebration of Women’s Month in South Africa. We interviewed the poets and asked them to share some of their work with us.

Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?

Kobus Kotze: I guess for the same reason most men do. I was in love with the coolest girl in our school when I was 13 and thought writing her some poetry would do the trick. It didn’t. That being said, I have always been in love with reading and words and the way books and stories made me feel was something sacred, untouchable and deeply personal. I guess I wanted to see if I could, in some way, touch this abstract but yet so real world on a different level than just being a reader

Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?

Kobus: Interesting question. I think it kind of just happens. I mean, things happen in our daily lives – you have a conversation with someone, you witness something inexplicable that keeps bugging you, you see a person that reminds you of someone or something or you hear a song that takes you to a place that freaks you out so much that you have this need to try and understand the not understandable. You have to write about these things otherwise, they either disappear into oblivion and the fact that you experienced them become obsolete or they morph into repeating thoughts in our heads that drive us insane.

Alwyn: Could you tell us more about your upcoming poetry collection?

Kobus: Yes, it’s a collection of poems telling stories about landscapes, people, and dreams. It seems it’s always threes, isn’t it? Think of Freud – the ego, the super-ego and the ID, or the Holy Ghost, Jesus and the Father or mind, body and spirit. For me, people, landscapes, and dreams make up my abstract reality or then private dogma. I believe we are all extensions of other people and when we write about other people we actually write about ourselves as well as our split personalities, hopes, and ideals. Landscapes are open and, especially in a country like South Africa, landscapes and place names have big political significance. Where the people I write about project my personal inward feelings. Dreams are obviously the fictional world that blurs the lines between everything. Think of people as the traditional Jesus figure, landscapes as the bigger God –like figure and dreams as the more mystic Holy Ghost or people as a body, landscapes as mind and dreams as the spirit (in a Buddhist sense). I have always been accused of being a bit too political in my writing, I hope to live up to that in this book. As an Afrikaans speaking white man and a pale male, I like to challenge the perception people have of me and my identity. The poetry in Afrikaans and will also include a QR Code or CD, we are still figuring that out, with a link to a spoken word album where some of the poems are paired with music. I was lucky enough to have the help of some of my favourite current South African musicians in this regard.

Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Studio Community.

Kobus: The poems I prepared had to do with things from my personal life. I talked about the strangeness of living in a foreign land, I currently reside in Korea. The second poem was about a brother and son my mom, me, dad and sister lost a very young age and how that memory almost became a metaphor for rebirth through hardship for me. My mother was there that evening and, as selfish as it might sound, it is a poem I wrote for her and I wanted her to hear it firsthand. There was a poem about a young boy being both abusive and abused, just as the 80s political system did to our society. This poem, just like the previous two were both autobiographical, albeit both with a bit of a creative license. The last poem was a drug infused rant to be quite honest.

Alwyn: What do you think it is important to celebrate Woman’s Month in Poetry?

Kobus: It is always important to celebrate women.

Interview with Zena John

Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event on Friday evening August 12 called Imbokodo at MB Studio Community in Pretoria. Five well-renowned poets, Athol Williams, Nkateko Masinga, Zena Velloo John, Kobus Kotze, and Mthunzikazi Mbungwana performed some of their poems in celebration of Women’s Month in South Africa. We interviewed the poets and asked them to share some of their work with us

Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?

Zena John: I am an accidental poet. Poetry found me! I was noting down observations of the human condition and universal experiences, and these were identified as poems by outside eyes.

Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?

Zena: A poem spills out of me onto the screen or page. It is almost a subconscious moment, a channelling of sorts. When this creative force is done, a poem has appeared. I don’t edit or re-write; it’s a once-off. The moment has come and gone.

Alwyn: You are part of a very exciting collaboration called “Beyond spice”, and you recently published your first poetry book. Could you tell us more about the collaboration and the main themes you explored in the book?

Zena: I am honoured to be part of a collective of six South African Indian women from Pretoria, who decided to pool our artistic talents into one book. I had been writing for years and decided to publish my collection of poems.The young art collective created imagery around themes within my poetry. We touched on the nuances of life, love, belonging, spirituality and all things mystical, in an attempt to reveal the sometimes hidden, creative world of women in our community.

zena-john_group

Top, L-R:  Shenaz Mahomed (Fine Artist), Kershnee Velloo (Artist), Raeesah (Designer, Illustrator, Photographer) Bottom, L-R:   Jayna Mistry (Fine Artist), Zena John (Poet), Shaskia John (Artist)

Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Studio Community.

Zena: I traced a line from the past to the present, alluding to the Indian indentured labourers that arrived in SA 150 years ago, and our unbreakable bond with all those that have gone before us. Bringing in elements of the soul and spirit world that hinge on our physical reality, I whispered the universal truths that bind us all to each other.

Alwyn: Why do you think is it important to celebrate Women’s Month in poetry?

Zena: Poets and other artists are keepers of the intangible threads that filters through all life streams. In our current reality, the Divine Female energy is consistently overlooked. We need to harmonise the celebration of women in all facets of creativity, and poetry brings the consciousness of society to the forefront. Poets are musical philosophers.

I AM

I am the free flow
I am the energy
I am you and I am me
I am is the most powerful thought in the universe
I bring to life that which has lain dormant for centuries
I sizzle through water drops
I dance on rainbows
I am the smile on your child’s face
I am the wrinkle on your oldster’s skin
I am life bursting forth from the green shoots
I am the wail of a newborn
I am the last sigh of the soul that travels beyond
I am infinity in a star
I am a wisp of thought gone in a second
Neither here nor there
But everywhere
And nowhere

© Zena John.

Lifesong

I wrapped myself within the african continent
tugging at its northern most point
tweaking its southern tip
to reach a comfortable
belt of awareness
home
I danced with the south asian sub-continent
giving flight to centuries of bell-jingling footsteps
toyed with the moon glistening on its holy waters
and found my soul hidden
in its duet
with the
sun

© Zena John.

Interview with Nkateko Masinga

Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event on Friday evening August 12 called Imbokodo at MB Studio Community in Pretoria. Five well-renowned poets, Athol Williams, Nkateko Masinga, Zena Velloo John, Kobus Kotze, and Mthunzikazi Mbungwana performed some of their poems in celebration of Women’s Month in South Africa. We interviewed the poets and asked them to share some of their work with us.

Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?

Nkateko MasingaI think I should first by explaining why I started writing altogether. I was very shy during childhood, so I was accustomed to sitting by myself and reading books. Eventually, I started using the art of writing to express myself. As I grew older, I developed a desire to tell my written stories in my own voice and hence I overcame my shyness.

When it comes to writing poetry specifically, I started because it is my favourite form of storytelling. Whether it is a limerick, haiku, sonnet or free verse, every poem has a story to tell. I believe that if we don’t write our stories down, future generations will have no proof that we lived. So I write poems so that other young people will read my stories and be inspired to write their own.

Alwyn: Your first poetry chapbook, entitled “The Sin In My Blackness” was published in 2015. Could you tell us more about the title of the book and the main themes you explored?

Nkateko: ‘The Sin In My Blackness’ started off as a single poem about black consciousness, but as time went on I started writing more poems on the same topic, and eventually the subject matter broadened to explore my experience of black womanhood in the South African context.

I wrote the book because being a black woman in South Africa is a daily struggle and in this struggle I have searched through the rubble and found a beauty in blackness that I am willing to defend, a beauty that I will not allow to be contained or stifled.

The title of the book is part of my personal mantra: I refuse to succumb to the notion that I must hide my hair, bleach my skin or make apologies for the way I sound when I speak. There is no shame or sin in my blackness.

the-sin-in-my-blackness

Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Studio Community.

Nkateko: My set at Imbokodo was titled “Lessons on Womanhood.” The message that I wanted to convey in those poems is that women deserve to be celebrated, irrespective of how they choose to live their lives. For too long, society has sold us the idea that women need to be ‘decent’, which is another way of saying we should be quiet, sit in a corner and behave.

My poem “Hollow men” talks about the consequences of silent womanhood. I believe Zora Neale Hurston said it best when she said: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” As women, we need to allow ourselves to be loud and take up as much space as we want to because the world can be cruel at times but speaking up is an act of kindness to ourselves.

Alwyn: Why do you think is it important to celebrate Women’s Month in poetry?

Nkateko: In August each year, South Africa honours women for fighting for their right to have a voice (to vote and make decisions in the running of the country), so we need to celebrate that by making female voices heard. Representation of the female voice must be all-inclusive so we cannot say we are celebrating women if we do not honour the work of female poets. Our work is important and the issues we address through the written and spoken word are also important.

Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?

Nkateko: I write about things that I’ve gone through and things that people around me have told me, so a poem will either start off as a reflection after I’ve processed a personal experience or an idea that comes to mind after a conversation with someone. From there I’ll jot down a few lines and the poem will basically write itself because I will leave it and then go back to it when a new idea comes to mind.

Poem 1:

How to be The Other Woman

You must learn to carry children who cannot fit in your womb And just as quickly let them go.
You must learn to be a bride without a groom; Wear a veil and walk slow, Impossibly slow, So painfully slow that you die before you reach the altar Because no man is waiting for you there.
You must learn to hold a pot, a kitchen cloth, a broom For the times when phone calls are answered in another room.
You must remember that you are first a woman Before you are a woman who is not put first.
You must learn that he is not the water to your thirst And that you are not cursed And that your heart will not burst.

You must learn your place.
You must plaster indifference on your face
And say “It’s okay, it’s okay”
so many times that it sounds like your heart beating,
Tastes like a meal you are re-heating,
Looks like an enemy you are defeating For the hundredth time
For the same crime.

You must learn her name
And say it until your mouth bleeds.
You must go to Home Affairs during your lunch break
And cry like a child
Because you cannot bear to not be her.

You must learn to knit while you sit on your bed.
Create something that can be destroyed by the pulling of a thread. Weave loss intricately into the fiber of your being.
Stitch pain into that tapestry
Because you are the other woman:
Not flesh of his flesh
But a thorn in the flesh of another woman.

Poem 2:

Hollow men

you were a riot within yourself;
hating your own spine,
wishing it could not bend.

you were quiet because
you did not know
there were a myriad poems
in the gap between your teeth,
a plethora of stories
on your tongue

you did not know that your voice
would make shells of grown men,
make them wish they could
drain their marrow
and say ‘welcome home’while handing you the keys to their bones.

and when you found out
that standing still also required your backbone,
that your stories were all fables
where you gave men fangs within locked jaws
and yourself, wings,

that hollow men were called ghosts and the women who enticed them
inherited haunted mansions,
it was too late.
to escape the hollow home and to restart the riot within yourself.

Interview with Athol Williams

Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event held on 12 August 2016, called Imbokodo hosted by MB Community Studio in Pretoria. The poet and writer Athol Williams was one of the five poets who attended the event. He shared some of his insights on writing poetry and the importance of celebrating Women’s Month with us.

Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?

Athol Williams: I feel as though poetry found me, not the other way around. As young as ten years old I was conjuring up stories and telling them to my younger brother as we went to bed.  I have been a reflective person for as long as I can recall, starting to keep a daily diary since the age of 15.  Somehow, my stories and diary reflections began merging and manifesting as poems.  My poems have evolved from being reflections of my place in the world to being reflections of my hope for the world.

Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?

Athol: Most poems begin with a strong overpowering emotional surge – there is something that wants to get out and so it bursts out and onto the page. Many poems start with a single idea or sometimes a word or phrase.  I will then spend time meditating on the idea, word or phrase and so the poem grows.  Once this initial surge has occurred I then get to work on refining and editing the poem – most poems undergo numerous rewrites. I believe that what we write on the page is not the real ‘poem,’ only a reflection of the poem.  The real ‘poem’ is something mystical, a cocktail of experiences, memories, visions, emotions and thoughts.  So it is the poet’s job to put words and language to work so that what is written gives the reader an experience that comes closest to what the poet experiences as the real ‘poem.’

Alwyn: Your last poetry collection, entitled Bumper Cars, was published in 2015. Could you tell us more about the title of the book and the main themes you explored?

bumper-cars

Athol:  I have spent the last 6 years steeped in thought about the sources of human conflict and imagining the possibility for a more harmonious human society, both in South Africa and globally.  My second book, Talking to a Tree, published in 2011 under the pseudonym AE Ballakisten, was my first effort to capture what I saw when I looked closely at the state of our societies.  The book Bumper Cars, is the next installment along this journey.  The book title comes from one of the poems in the book of the same title.  In this poem, I imagine a society where people interact as though they are riding in bumper cars, those little cars that we rode as kids at amusement parks.  In this society we engage in a robust way, we express our different ideas and contest our different viewpoints but these differences don’t lead to conflict, as they do in our real societies, rather we bounce off each other as the bumper cars do.  Bumper cars have those thick rubber bands around them – this prevents damage during collisions.  The key question for me has been – what is the rubber band in our society, what is it that will prevent us from violence as we express our differences?  My answer is compassion.  When we have compassion for each other, i.e. empathy and willing to act for the good of the other, our contested ideas will not reduce to violence.  I think this is a very important lesson for South Africa today.

Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Community Studio.

Athol:  There were 3 broad ideas.  Firstly, I expressed the idea that “how we see each other determines the nature of the society we create.”  If we see each other as enemies we create a society of barriers, restraints, and restrictions, we try to avoid each other.  If we see each other as brothers and sisters, we create a more open society.  Part of what drives people apart is our skewed view of each other, some call this identity politics, but it comes down to every interaction – how we view a beggar, how a man views a woman, how the young view the old and so on.  Part of constructing a more harmonious society is to challenge and revise how we see each other.  The poem “Beggars” is a good example of this – firstly it shows the disdain with which some people are treated, even though we don’t know their context, and it also shows that without knowing this context we can shape our society in a way that drives us to undesirable outcomes.  A second idea that I shared is that of “possibility.” Since our societies, with its laws and norms, are all designed and maintained by humans we can also change it, it is literally within our power and means to rid the world of large-scale conflict, poverty, and suffering.  There is nothing natural about the order of things, we collectively can determine the prospects for our society.  We just need the will to do it.  In the poem “Magic” I naively ask for the ability to let men see this possibility.  I don’t think we need magic to solve the problem but perhaps we do need some magic for us to awaken to the possibility – I believe that poetry can contribute to this awakening.  This brings me to my third idea that I shared on the evening, that words are powerful and that as writers we have a role to play in crafting this desired world – we need to speak boldly and courageously, but also prophetically, sharing our visions.  I shared two poems with this theme, “Words” and the unpublished “These Words.”

unisa-poetry-sessions-imkodo

Alwyn: Why do you think is it important to celebrate Women’s Month in poetry?

Athol:  Our history has been one of creating fault lines up and down our society.  Before we can really grow as a society we need healing, and I believe that poetry has a significant role to play in this healing.  One of these fault lines has been our historical and enduring oppression of women, so it is important that we highlight the gender disparity in our society and the need to close this gap.  And since poetry is key to our overall healing process, it is also critical to healing the wounds that our society has inflicted upon women.  It is encouraging to see women sharing their experiences and viewpoints through poetry – this will add to the awakening that we need.  We cannot solve gender oppression if we don’t face its ugliness.  It is also encouraging to see poets, male and female, imagining a society of gender-parity, of mutual respect and mutual prosperity.  This is the central message of Bumper Cars … compassion, a compassionate society would not tolerate any division along any lines.

Interview with Mthunzikazi Mbungwana

Unisa Poetry Society held a truly unique poetry event held on 12 August 2016, called Imbokodo hosted by MB Community Studio in Pretoria. The poet Mthunzikazi Mbungwana was one of the five poets who attended the event. She shared some of her insights on writing poetry and the importance of celebrating Women’s Month with us.

Alwyn Roux: Why did you start writing poetry?

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: When I started writing, I was not aware that it was poetry or any kind of social commentary.

I wrote because I was a loner and when I got to Pretoria from the Eastern Cape, frequency of my writing increased and I struggled to make friends, so I wrote as a way of understanding this big city and its dynamics.

I spent most of my time at the then Sammy Marks Library (now known as Eskia Mphahlele Library ) reading various African literature books and just writing free verses.

I later joined an Arts and Culture movement called Uhuru wa Maisha and got introduced to performance poetry and alternative poetry collections other than the ones prescribed during my high school days.

Alwyn: How does a poem begin for you?

Mthunzikazi: It always starts with a feeling, thought,  burning need to express an itch, discomfort, sense of joy or any other emotion that constantly occupy my mind or distract me from thinking about anything else but it. I scribble these feelings down and they are later refined to a poem or remain a free verse.

Alwyn: Your debut isiXhosa poetry collection, entitled Umnikelo was published in 2015. Could you tell us more about the title of the book and the main themes you explored?

Mthunzikazi: Umnikelo means an offering. This is my contribution to the literary world. My interpretation of the stories I have heard, events witnessed and the voices I want to unlock those in my head and those that are accessed through the eyes of my fellow human beings that I interact with on different levels and spaces

This book is my own understanding and dealings with the every day to day life, the constant battle of balancing being an artist and doing what needs to be done as a sole breadwinner, friend, daughter, citizen of this country, African, black woman, and as a perfect imperfections and more depending on the situation I find myself in as an artist, storyteller and human.

I am also passionate about preserving the indigenous languages and advocating for its existence through writing and encouraging others to do the same. South Africa has 11 languages, therefore, every story is important and we cannot have the stories of this country told through one or two languages(if we are lucky), what about other cultures/ nations/ tribes, who is going to tell their stories?

The themes explored in this collection range from urbanization, absent fathers,  social commentary and rebuking of inhuman acts such as the  Marikana massacre, greed, and indecisiveness of our leaders, abduction and abuse of young girls under a disguise of culture, being a foreigner and being destitute in the land of our mothers. It also covers love and living.

Alwyn: Please give us a short summary of your ideas expressed at Imbokodo on 12 August at MB Studio Community.

Mthunzikazi: I am a storyteller, spent most of my life between the rural Transkei and in squatter camps on the outskirts of Cape Town.  I write about my experiences and tell the stories of those who do not have access to these spaces of expression, trying hard to tell them with honesty and dignity they deserve. Its stories of hope, lending my voice to fight against the abduction of young girls whether it’s in Nigeria or in the Eastern Cape, or just being living and loving. Teaching while learning and making mistakes.

unisa-poetry-sessions-imkodo

Alwyn: Why do you think is it important to celebrate Women’s Month in poetry?

Mthunzikazi: A lot of women still needs to be encouraged and supported to be able to juggle between being mothers, caregivers, wives and super human beings and to trust that their voices are important and we need to hear their side of the story in these poetry sessions and to write more. There are a lot of great female writers that are out there being great writers and performers, but there are a lot of them that are out there with beautiful and courageous stories that have a potential of healing this country and the world. We are waiting for those too.

Thula Ukhalelani?
Marikana- 16 August 2012

Ifikelele  kwesisimo,
Kuchithek’ ilindle,
lwabolisa  yonke indawo
ungagxeka bani ke ngokufa kwebhokhwe
isezwa iyeza?

Ubungekhe usijul’entlango
wakugqiqba usirhalisele ngamathontsana amanzi
Uwuhluphezile umbundlwana,
ngoku yingqeqe edlavuza,
amaqath’ endwendwe
Lo mzi awungeni bantu
Thula ukhalelani?

Liphalale  igazi labantwana babantu bengenatyala
Ziqungqulizile iizidumbu, bafa njengezinja
Abafazi bakhala isijwili emva kocango
Amadoda ayangqukuleka enkundleni,
Abantwanana  bayazidlalela  emva kwezindlu,
Bejong’ enkalweni becula besithi,
Utata uyezangomso, uzakusiphathela izibiliboco,
Zase Marikana, Marikana-Marikana!

What’s that cry?*
Marikana 16 August 201

The arrival of time was announced
Not by a ticking clock but a rattling barrel,
Emptied bowels rotting the hilltop, subdued cries and tattered apparel
What could we do with our trembling hands up in surrender?

The monster master threw us into the desert
Only to tempt us with tongue-wetting little water drops
But the throat remains dry and sore.
The pup you provoked is now a raging bulldog
Barking at passers-by and biting at visitors’ heels
Soon the sores will be septic and never heal
No one shall enter this home, not while wounded dogs snarl
But why the shock, why the cry?

Clotting blood splatters the hill rocks, we cry
Wounded bodies of the innocent strewn, brothers lay dying
A young newly-wed gives a heart-wrenching cry from under the veil
Screaming aloud grief-prayer to gods and God
While little children unknowingly play their after-rain songs
“Daddy will bring me gifts from Marikana,
Marikana, Marikana!”

© Mthunzikazi Mbungwana
© Translations from isiXhosa to English by Thembelani Ngenelwa

Ngumnt’anomntu

Wamzala seliyokutshona ilanga,
wambeka entendeni yesandla sakhe,
wamfahla inkaba ngothando, ububele , nokuzithemba

Wakhula ekrelekrele enxanelwe ulwazi, nemfundo
waphumela ngaphandle elizweni,
elimqengqelezi
bamqoba amadolo, bamnyelisa bembiza amagama,
nabo bebefanelwe kukumkhusela,
abo baqhayisa ngokuba ngamakholwa,
bamnukuneza.

Kwathamba amadolo,
wamngcikiva umvandedwa,
isono sakhe sinye qha, kukuthanda,
lo uthandwa yintliziyo yakhe.

**
She gave birth at dusk
To a bouncing beautiful bundle of joy
Confidently the umbilical cord was cut, carefully, heart full of love

A giggling toddler grew into a bright teenage mind
Hungry for words, yearning for the Message
She went out onto the slippery slopes of the World
To deliver that message of Love and compassion
But the world forced its own message
Of revulsion, revolt and ridicule
Supposed protectors leading the attacks
Religious and righteous throwing the first stones
The abuse went unabated and unrebuked

With resolve weakened and dream deferred
She felt isolated, despised and betrayed
The supposed guilt led to a harsh sentence of hate
Locked in cold cells of queer languages
Rape called corrective, murder called phobia
Her only sin?
To love the one in her heart.

© Mthunzikazi Mbungwana
© Translations from isiXhosa to English by Thembelani Ngenelwa